Torture, Spying, Bureaucratic Dystopia - They’re Not Just for Newsrooms Any More!

A must-read report on the realities on the ground in Iraq, arguments about democracy in the Middle East, and a look at John Bolton's tenure as ambassador to the U.N.

This week’s must-read story comes courtesy of Julian E. Barnes in U.S. News & World Report, who writes about U.S. Army Maj. Jonathan Fox and his successful campaign to break an insurgent cell in Mosul, Iraq just before last month’s national election. The piece captures the fluid nature of the war, and the lengths to which some commanders feel they need to go in order to break the back of the enemy. The story is this: Maj. Fox detains a few insurgents, and, unable to get information from them, hands them over to an Iraqi Army officer who “interrogated” prisoners for the Hussein regime. The men talk, and give up the leader of their insurgent cell and a weapons cache. Victory? Not so fast. Since the men may have been beaten (or worse), Fox’s superiors make him hand the men over to the less-than-trustworthy Mosul police, who were supposed to have custody of them in the first place. There’s more, but you’ll need to read the story to understand the morally ambiguous choices American soldiers have to face every day.

Branching out from Iraq, New York Times reporter James Risen, who along with colleague Eric Lichtblau recently broke the story about the NSA’s domestic wiretapping program, sees his book on the subject, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, released today. Time runs a review this week, writing that “the book is punctuated with a wealth of previously unreported tidbits about covert meetings, aborted CIA operations and Oval Office outbursts. The result is a brisk, if dispiriting, chronicle of how, since 9/11, the ‘most covert tools of national-security policy have been misused.’”

Most striking in the Time review is the report that after the arrest of al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah in March 2002, “Bush summoned CIA director George Tenet to the White House to ask what intelligence Abu Zubaydah had provided his captors. According to Risen’s source, Tenet told Bush that Abu Zubaydah, badly wounded during his capture, was too groggy from painkillers to talk coherently. In response, Bush asked, ‘Who authorized putting him on pain medication?’” (Cue angry conservative pushback in 3 … 2 … 1 …)

Since the Middle East seems to be dominating the world of dead-tree media this week, we next turn out attention to the Weekly Standard, where Reuel Marc Gerecht takes a long and occasionally noodling look at the prospect of religiously tinged democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. He writes, “We should realize that in Mesopotamia, as in Afghanistan, democracy will be either made or broken by men and women of serious, not particularly reformed faith — not by secular liberals, Muslim progressives, or ‘moderates.’”

He continues, rightly, that “Iraq and Afghanistan as liberal beacons in the region never really made much sense,” but they are, nevertheless, “at present the Muslim world’s two most important democratic laboratories. They are not causes for despair. On the contrary, for devout Muslims who are trying to introduce concepts of popular sovereignty into political philosophy, both nations are — and the word is used correctly — progressive.”

Moving south to Pakistan, in the January/February issue of Mother Jones, Nir Rosen travels through the electoral and social politics of that country (subscription required) — and doesn’t find much good news. In a piece heavy on quotes and relatively light on analysis Rosen paints a picture of a country of which one interviewee predicted “doom” as its only future.

Finally, we have a winner for the “sentence of the week” award. We found it in Jennifer Senior’s article about American ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton in New York magazine. In her highly engaging — and oddly entertaining — piece, Senior writes of the U.N., “There’s a singularly unresolved quality to the place, as if it can’t decide whether it’s a multicultural Utopia of collective action or a monochromatic dystopia of pencil-pushing futility.”

Funny — that also sounds like some newsrooms we know.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.